The Clare Spark Blog

November 23, 2013

The pitfalls in writing histories of the movies

Ben UrwandThere is a sprawling bibliography of both trade books and academic studies of the movie industry.  Into this minefield, strides Ben Urwand, whose book has been received with fury or, in some cases, approbation.

For Ben Urwand’s recent Harvard published book The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler, “Hollywood”, “Jewish” moguls, “capitalism,” and the ostensibly Nazified/anticommunist/bigoted  American movie industry are conflated and held in contempt. (The “collaboration” that Urwand and the many critics of mass culture and mass media may have in mind is the bond between image and audience. Like other critics of technology and its assistance to demagogues, Urwand turns out to be an antimodern, even a sort of Tory, though he appears to be writing from the left. For instance, writing in the voice of “Doremus Jessup,” Sinclair Lewis wrote, “‘Is it just possible,’ [Doremus Jessup] sighed, ‘that the most vigorous and boldest idealists have been the worst enemies of human progress instead of its greatest creators? Possible that plain men with the humble trait of minding their own business will rank higher in the heavenly hierarchy than all the plumed souls who have shoved their way in among the masses and insisted on saving them?'” So modern mass media enable demagoguery of the kind that Lewis fears. Odd that Lewis doesn’t pin this on FDR in his It Can’t Happen Here  (1935), a book that Urwand admired and wished that it had been turned into a movie. (For a blog on the “cultural Marxists” see https://clarespark.com/2013/07/31/the-nefarious-cultural-marxists/.)

With respect to the Urwand book, the questions for an academic reviewer are easily summarized: Given the magnitude of the claim of the book, that from 1930 onward, “Hollywood” dismissed Jews from the screens it controlled, and worse, allowed Germans in both Weimar and in the Third Reich to censor movies, to the point where even the Holocaust was off limits for filmic presentation after WW2 until the 1960s, by what criteria should Urwand’s thesis be either defended or criticized?

Since Urwand cites German archives in his footnotes, one would expect the author to be fluent in the German language (he is self-taught in the language); to fully understand the culture of Nazi Germany (looking for continuities and discontinuities with the modern German past); and most importantly, to have reviewed the responses of Western Europe and America to the New World Order proposed by the various fascisms, putting up with Hitler and Mussolini until 1939, and keeping their distance from the Spanish Civil War. Urwand seems to know little about the history of anti-Semitism and isolationist suspicions of war-mongering “Jews” who were trying to snare American Christians into their nefarious “collaborationist” schemes. And since Urwand shows no reluctance in declaring (but not proving) why certain “anti-fascist” movie scripts were dropped by such famously conservative, pro-American moguls as Louis B. Mayer and other producers, we would expect the author to understand the intricacies of the movie business and the often chaotic or unrecorded decision-making, including the various forces that pre-censored and post-censored movies, especially after 1934 when the Production Code was established and controlled by Joseph Breen and the Catholic Legion of Decency. But we must not neglect the power that New York financiers exerted over the studios located in California–a matter explored by Cary Beauchamp in her recent biography of Joseph P. Kennedy, drawing upon previously restricted papers in the Kennedy Library (publ. 2008).

Ben Hecht as depicted on anti-Zionist website

Ben Hecht as depicted on anti-Zionist website

Urwand’s book is easily dismissed as the unsupported speculations of an ideologue bent on imitating Ben Hecht by separating antisemitism (‘bad’) and anti-Zionism (‘good’),* but not so an entire genre of movie history written from the academic Left and published by the most prestigious university presses. These authors include Thomas Doherty, Gregory D. Black, Clayton R. Koppes, and Steven Alan Carr. While a few of these academics criticize antisemitism in books depicting “Hollywood” as generically Jewish [Carr],  or note Joseph Breen’s open hostility to the scummy and omnipotent Jews who ran Hollywood [Black], in the end many resent the “Hollywood” representations of a phony melting pot, and idealizations of heterosexual romance, happy families, escapism, spectacle, glamour, happy endings, the suppression of labor vs. capital conflict, racism, and more, but most of all, they are dead set against the Dies Committee and “McCarthyism” as evidenced in the postwar blacklist after the Cold War was begun. Since many of their books were published after the Soviet archives were opened and books published verifying many of HUAC’s or McCarthy’s suspicions and accusations, one might conclude that capitalism and the profit-motive are the real targets of academic interest in the movies. (The authors who have written about the revelations in the Soviet archives include Mark Kramer, John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev.)

For prior blogs on Ben  Urwand’s book, see https://clarespark.com/2013/10/10/urwand-undoes-chaplins-dictator/, and https://clarespark.com/2013/09/13/urwands-collaboration-hollywoods-pact-with-hitler/. No reviews, even those dismissive of Urwand’s peculiar view of “collaboration”, have sketched in the appropriate historical context for evaluating this academic book’s claims. It was published by Harvard University Press, but those academic readers who supported it are anonymous. But in insisting that Hollywood profits supported the Nazi war machine, Urwand’s thesis reminds me of Edwin Black’s sensationalized work. That Urwand’s book has received some good reviews suggests that many movie journalists are unequipped to evaluate histories of the movie business.

*I am reading Hecht’s Child of the Century (1954) now, and Hecht is a waverer on the subject of Israel. More when I finish this autobiography. Urwand may have misunderstood the extent to which Irgun-admiring Hecht distanced himself from “Zionism.”

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October 10, 2013

Urwand undoes Chaplin’s Dictator

Chaplin as Adenoid Hynkel

Chaplin as Adenoid Hynkel

One of Ben Urwand’s chief claims in his THE COLLABORATION: HOLLYWOOD’S PACT WITH HITLER, is that Jews virtually disappeared from Hollywood films after Hitler “came to power,” owing to Hollywood greed in preserving their business with Germany . One of his examples compares the copyrighted 1938 version of THE GREAT DICTATOR to the version released in 1940.

[Urwand, p.219] …Back on November 10, 1938, when the first reports of Kristallnacht were hitting American newspapers, Chaplin had rushed the first version of his story to the U. S. Copyright Office.  …Hinkle [sic] the dictator of Ptomania, had devised a scientific test to separate Jews from Aryans. All Jews were sent to concentration camps, and one named Charlie, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Hinkle, broke out. He was mistaken for the dictator, and he gave a speech that convinced the country to abandon fascism. Suddenly music filled the streets. Everyone started dancing. Prisoners were released from the camps. Storm troopers were dancing with Jews.

[Urwand, cont.:] The script ended with an epilogue: “Through the music comes the playing of a bugle call. The scene shifts back to the concentration camp. Charlie wakes up with a smile as a storm-trooper enters. The storm trooper starts to smile back, then ashamed of his softness he bellows: ‘Get up, Jew! Where the hell do you think you are?’” [footnote refers to Copyright Records, Ms. Division, Library of Congress]

[Urwand, cont.:] Chaplin took this chilling idea and turned it into a hilarious but less effective film. He shifted the location of the persecution of the Jews from a concentration camp to a ghetto. He gave a long rambling speech at the climax that had virtually nothing to do with the Jewish question. And he replaced the twist at the end…with his audience responding with cheers and applause. [Clare:] The footnote refers solely to the 1940 film; Urwand is perhaps unaware that 19th century German Jews were assimilated and that ghettos were created in Occupied Europe where they did not already exist, as prelude to extermination. A more sensitive reader might have looked at the Chaplin biography, and the emancipation of the Jews in Western Europe, especially Germany. Added: 1012-13: an academic friend has reminded me that Victor Klemperer’s diary describes how Jews were moved around to all Jewish buildings, but there were no walled ghettos as such in Germany.]

“Nothing to do with the Jewish question?!” My first response after a viewing of The Great Dictator was that Chaplin doesn’t do dark and depressing movies very well (e.g. Monsieur Verdoux, that developed a cult following only. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monsieur_Verdoux ), in contrast to his comic genius in the tour de force of  this and earlier films. But upon re-reading Urwand’s synopsis, I thought of Chaplin’s ambiguous identity as constructed by others: For antimoderns, he was the Wandering or Eternal Jew as Tramp. (See http://jewishquarterly.org/2010/11/charlie-chaplin-jewish-or-goyish/ ). The 1938 version (assuming that Urwand got it right), suggests that being taken for a Jew was terrifying to Chaplin. Whereas in the 1940 finished film, the Jewish barber finds his voice and gives a ringing speech echoing not only the Hebraism of progressive Protestantism, but one that would imbue his war- weary or isolationist audience with the will to fight the Nazis. His quote from the New Testament is resonant with universal ethics, worldliness, science, technology, and liberty. It is also consistent with the internationalist ideology of the anti-fascist Popular Front, and an affront to the notion of the racially pure organic nation as perpetrated by Nazis and their sympathizers. [Urwand devoted a long, seeminly irrelevant  footnote criticizing the ineptitude of Chaplain as orator,  See endnote 99, pp. 262-263, referring back to p. 41. I am baffled as to why Urwand is so obsessive about Chaplain’s movie.]

Chaplin speech

Here is the text of that final speech, with paragraphs added to make the speech more user-friendly:

[Chaplin/Barber speech; the humble character is mistaken for Adenoid Hynkel, conqueror of Osterlitz (the Mussolini character, played by Jack Oakie, suggests Napoleon, but calling Austria Osterlitz fuses Austria with the Battle of Austerlitz:]

I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an Emperor, that’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone if possible, Jew, gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another, human beings are like that. We all want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone and the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful.

But we have lost the way. Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate; has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in; machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical, our cleverness hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity, more than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities life will be violent and all will be lost. The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men, cries out for universal brotherhood for the unity of us all.

Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world, millions of despairing men, women and little children, victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people. To those who can hear me I say: do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed, the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass and dictators will die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people and so long as men die liberty will never perish. Soldiers: don’t give yourselves to brutes, men who despise you and enslave you, who regiment your lives, tell you what to do, what to think and what to feel, who drill you, diet you, treat you as cattle, as cannon fodder! Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men, machine men, with machine minds and machine hearts. You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men!! You have the love of humanity in your hearts. You don’t hate, only the unloved hate. The unloved and the unnatural.

Soldiers: don’t fight for slavery, fight for liberty! In the seventeenth chapter of Saint Luke it is written: – “The kingdom of God is within man.” Not one man, nor a group of men, but in all men: in you! You the people have the power, the power to create machines, the power to create happiness. You the people have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure. Then, in the name of democracy, let us use that power, let us all unite! Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give you the future and old age and security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power, but they lie. They do not fulfil their promise, they never will. Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people.

Now let us fight to fulfil that promise. Let us fight to free the world, to do away with national barriers, to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness. Soldiers! In the name of democracy: let us all unite!”  [end Jewish Barber speech]

For more details on the making of The Great Dictator, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Great_Dictator. It is worth noting that Paulette Goddard, a fighting Jew in the movie, ends the film listening to the speech on the radio,  moves from despair to optimism, with her eyes lifted to the sun breaking through the clouds, confirming the message of Enlightenment and activism on behalf of humanity. The gesture is resonant with, but not identical to, the Christian gaze to Heaven for inspiration and eternal life.

Goddard

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